Sam Altman has a new startup that aims to provide a special type of cryptocurrency to every person on the planet. But first, it scans everyone’s eyeballs.

Altman, a former head of Silicon Valley business incubator Y Combinator, was one of the three founders of Worldcoin. Among many parts of its plan, Worldcoin has designed a spherical device that can scan a person’s iris to build a unique personal identifier.

The company is backed by Coinbase Global Inc. ‘s venture-capital arm, Andreessen Horowitz, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Day One Ventures. It recently raised about $25 million from investors.

Altman, 36, said in an interview that he conceived of the idea in late 2019. The aim is to use cryptocurrency to spread money around fairly, inspired by the trendy economic theory known as universal basic income. Altman was Worldcoin’s first investor, but he said he played no role in day-to-day operations, mostly as an adviser to the company when needed.

“I’ve always been very interested in things like universal basic income and what’s going to happen with the global redistribution of wealth and how we can do it better, “Altman said. Is there a way that we can use technology to do this on a global scale?”

The venture is headed by Alexander Brania, 27, a former theoretical physics student at the California Institute of Technology and the Max Planck Institute. He co-founded Worldcoin with Altman and Max Novenstein, who previously worked at Ray Dalio’s investment firm Bridgewater Associates LP and money transfer startup Wave.

After Bloomberg discovered details of their project and asked, Altman and Bragnar agreed to discuss their project, which has not been previously reported. Blania said Worldcoin is still gearing up for its official debut, but for now, the startup is evaluating what it might need to bring cryptocurrencies to as many people as possible one day. “There are a lot of people in the world who don’t have access to the financial system,” Blania said. Cryptocurrencies have a chance to get us there.”

Altman went from being a 19-year-old founder of a mid-sized social network called Loopt to being a founder of Y Combinator. He served as the company’s president from 2014 to 2019, during which time some of the accelerator’s companies, including Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe, became some of the most valuable startups in the United States.

Under Altman’s leadership, Y Combinator plans to experiment with a universal basic income, but has faced delays and complications. In a 2019 interview with the economist Tyler Cowen, Altman discussed how a system that distributes money to everyone circumvents the need for government redistribution.

After leaving Y Combinator, Altman worked on artificial intelligence at OpenAI LLC, a research firm he co-founded with Tesla’s Elon Musk in 2015. They parted ways two years ago over disagreements about their plans for OpenAI. A few months later, the company raised $1 billion from Microsoft as part of a partnership that will see the software giant become the exclusive provider of its cloud computing services. The group has demonstrated software that, for example, can create realistic-looking news stories based on some input.

According to an online job description, the startup, via Worldcoin, promises “a new global digital currency that will be launched by providing a share to every person on the planet.” The company aims to help economies transition to cryptocurrencies “through a novel approach: a dedicated hardware device that ensures everyone’s humanity and uniqueness, while maintaining their privacy and the overall transparency of the permission-free blockchain.”

The device, a silver spherical gadget the size of a basketball, can be carried around and used to scan people’s iris to determine their unique identity, Blania said. He said Worldcoin has begun testing the sphere on a small scale in various cities. The WorldCoin currency itself isn’t ready for release, so the company is currently offering volunteers other types of digital coins, mainly bitcoin, in exchange for scanning their eyes and giving them feedback on the scanning process.

The company has fewer than 20 prototypes circulating around the world, Blania said. A prototype animal skin costs about $5,000 to make, he said, but the price will drop sharply as the company refines the process. Worldcoin will eventually be based in San Francisco, although its employees are currently scattered due to the coronavirus epidemic.

Iris scanning is an important part of the plan, according to Blania, because it prevents people from trying to sign up multiple times to cheat the system. He is also aware of the privacy concerns of handing over biometric information to a small startup, and says WorldCoin will make the process as transparent as possible so users can see how the data is being used. He said the iris scan would produce a unique digital code for each person, and then the image would be deleted and never stored.